I recently wrote an extensive article on home studio essential which explained the minimum pieces of equipment you require to start recording music at home. I recommended equipment that I personally have accumulated over the years but if you were to buy all that equipment in one go it would cost you a lot of money! So is there a way to get all the essentials you need in a studio on a smaller budget? In this article, I will attempt to give some minimum price options for you to get started and allow you to start making music for far less money.
It depends on what type of music you are want to produce what will be essential and what you can live without but as a minimum, you will probably want:
- A laptop or computer (Under $600)
- A basic digital audio workstation (Under $100)
- Speakers (or headphones) ($150- $300)
- An audio interface ($50-$100)
- A microphone ($50-$100)
- Some effects plugins (From free)
So if you go for the most budget options I give below you can get it all for under $1000!
Disclaimer: I could have done it for much cheaper but this is the minimum I think you should be spending when starting a studio even on a budget. There are of course cheaper laptops and speakers available but I don’t want to recommend stuff that just won’t get you a good sound. If you can’t afford $1000 in one go either add stuff gradually (you can start making music on just a laptop and DAW) or look on eBay for the things I mention below. I always recommend buying new equipment because you have the piece of mind of a warranty etc but if you are struggling for money it is better than settling for a cheaper option.
Laptop or Computer
At the centre of any home recording studio is the laptop or computer. In fact, you can make very professional sounding music with simply this and some basic software. But unless you are going to be going very old school and start recording on tapes a laptop or computer is the very least you will need.
I am a big fan of using a laptop for music production. It used to be the case that laptops were not powerful enough to handle the heavy processing and memory requirements of music production but that is no longer the case and even some more budget laptops can work for music production now.
The reason I love laptops is that you can keep writing and mixing on the sofa, in bed or on a train. I will quite often start a song at my desk and then carry on elsewhere. It also allows me to have a ‘portable studio’, I can take the laptop to a studio to record some drums or to a church to record some vocals.
You may already own a laptop and if you can use that you have already saved yourself money. However, I always recommend trying to use your laptop for mainly music production and don’t fill it with loads of other programmes which will take up memory space and make it struggle. Ideally you will have a laptop dedicated to music (and maybe occasional browsing). As a minimum check the manual and make sure it has the minimum specifications mentioned below.
On a budget, you will be pushing the limits of what you can get away with but it is possible. I’m an advocate of Apple and I’ve used a Macbook Pro for music production for a number of years and love it. But as you probably know it is hard to get anything from Apple without paying a premium (even used!). The minimum specs you will need in a budget laptop are:
- At least 2.2Ghz i5 quad-core processor
- At least 4GB of RAM
- 64-bit operating system
- At least 256GB of internal storage (HDD or SSD)
- At least a 15-inch screen.
For detailed reasons as to why check out this article I wrote on minimum laptop specs for music production.
A couple of good options I could find were:
Acer Aspire E 15 Laptop
For just over $500 this laptop has great specs. It comes with a 8th generation i5 quad-core processor which although isn’t the top i7 should easily be powerful enough. It comes with 8GB of RAM which is great for having to multi-task and has 256GB of SSD storage which will hold hundreds of compositions.
The newest version of the well known HP Pavillion series also has an i5 quad-core processor. A hefty 12GB of RAM and a massive 1TB of hard drive memory! This should be a great option for under $600 A bargain when you think those same specs on an Apple machine would cost at least double that!
Digital Audio Workstation
Now you have a laptop you are going to need some software to record into. This is your digital audio workstation (DAW).
There are a huge range of DAWs available these days ranging from free to several hundred dollars in price. So if you are on a budget the great news is you can start for free! Obviously you won’t get as many features in a free DAW as in a paid one but it will mean you can start recording and you will find a lot of the basic features are the same, making any eventual transition to a more expensive DAW much easier.
Best Free/ Cheap DAWs 2019
I have a soft spot for Audacity because it is the DAW I used at the start of my home recording journey. Audacity is a free, open-source DAW that is available on both Windows and Mac and has been about for over 20 years now, first appearing back in 1999.
Audacity will allow you to record multiple tracks in mono or stereo. But not only that but it comes with loads of built-in effects tools which is great for basic production and will really help you learn. Built-in effects include EQ, a compressor, filters, reverb, delay and much more.
The great thing about Audacity being free and open-source is that there is a tonne of free guidance on the internet and youtube to help you get started.
The key limitations are that you can’t record MIDI and you can’t use plugins but for recording a basic track and practising the basics there aren’t many better free options.
Probably a better option than using completely free software like Audacity is to use one of the many ‘lite’ version of the biggest DAWs out there.
My next step after using Audacity was to progress onto Cubase LE. I think this was because I got a free copy on a disk when I bought my Audio Interface. And this is the case for a lot of pieces of recording equipment, in fact, I think I have around 4 Cubase LE disks lying around somewhere!
Cubase LE is a lite version of Cubase the DAw from Steinberg. The full version will cost you almost $1000 but probably in an attempt to tempt you into buying that Steinberg will give you quite a decent lite version for free.
By not paying for the full version you will be limited to a maximum 16 audio tracks, 24 MIDI tracks and recording quality will be limited to 192kHz.
For a beginner, this is plenty of tracks! You may have to be clever putting some drums on the same track rather than having them all separate for example. But having less tracks to use can actually be helpful as it will force you to keep your songs simple and not be tempted to have hundreds of different instruments playing at the same time.
As with audacity you get basic plugins included such as EQ, compression, reverb, delay. You can also use 3rd party plugins/ VSTs another added bonus over Audacity.
If you are lucky enough to own an Apple computer (or even an iPad) you will have Apple’s Garageband software included. Garageband is effectively a lite version of Apples Pro Tools software which is one of the most popular DAWs out there.
A very fun to use accessible DAW, it comes loaded with lots of virtual MIDI instruments so you can make entire tracks simply using MIDI.
Ableton Live 10 Intro
Not free but available for under $100 is the basic ‘intro’ version of Ableton Live.
If electronic music is your thing or if you like producing using looping then Ableton is probably the DAW for you. It is the DAW I am using now but the full version will set you back several hundred dollars so before going crazy try the intro version first.
With the ‘intro’ version, you will be able to record up to 16 tracks and comes loads with over 1500 sound samples to mess about with.
Once you have recorded some music you are going to want to hear it back. To do this properly and to be able to mix your tracks you can’t simply use you laptop speakers or a pair of headphones you have lying around the house. You need a real pair of monitor speakers or headphones which will allow you to hear a true representation of the sounds you are recording. Laptop speakers have nowhere near enough bass and some headphones that are designed for playing music may have too much bass.
If you mix on inadequate speakers or headphones you will be very disappointed when you play your song on different speaker systems. A good pair of speakers or headphones for monitoring will not ‘over-hype’ any frequencies.
Some people are very anti-headphones for mixing. And I agree, if you have a lot of money to spend and you want the best sound you can get in a home studio, monitor speakers are a much safer option for getting an accurate sound. But speakers are much more expensive than headphones so if you are on a budget you can get some very good headphones that will also do a more than adequate job. The beauty of headphones too is you can mix anywhere in you house and at any time of the day without annoying the neighbours too.
beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO
Whereas a decent pair of speakers will cost you over $500 you can get these amazing quality studio headphones for under $150!
They go over your ears so block out external sounds but are ‘open-backed’ which means they allow air to flow through them. This is important when mixing as it creates space and depth so you can differentiate the different instruments in your mix.
They accurately represent all frequencies from the very low end to the high end too and they are extremely comfortable to wear with the leather headband and soft ear cups meaning you can wear them for hours without feeling uncomfortable.
KRK RPGG3 Rokit 5s
If you really want to get some monitor speakers then you will have to splash out more even for the most budget option but the KRK Rokit 5s are a classic and you may have seen those familiar yellow speaker dots in various studio pictures.
They clearly look awesome (very important) but they do also sound great. And that is my one criticism, they almost sound too good and overhype the bass sound a little too much for my liking. However, if you appreciate that fact and make sure you account for it when you are mixing these are an awesome pair of starter speakers.
At this point, you could actually record a full track using virtual studio technology (VST) plugins digitally on your computer. But chances are you will want to record either vocals or some real-life instruments, to do this you will need an Audio Interface.
An audio interface connects to your computer or laptop via a USB connection and has various inputs. As a minimum in terms of inputs you will want:
- at least one instrument input that takes a 1/4 inch jack (a standard guitar lead)
- at least one XLR microphone input
- a headphone output
Recording music on your own in the home studio means you are rarely going to need multiple inputs. Some of the more expensive audio interfaces have several inputs but for your basic budget needs, money is better saved and spent elsewhere.
Some good budget options are:
Behringer U-Phoria UMC22
The Behringer UMC22 won’t give you the best sound quality or number of features but for under $60, if you are on a budget there aren’t many better options available. The sampling rate is quite low (just 48kHz) but the mic pre-amp is fairly decent for the money.
Focusrite Scarlett Solo
For slightly more money (around $100) you can get a Focusrite Scarlett Solo. If you have read any of my other articles and recommendations you will probably know I’m a big fan of the Focusrite audio interfaces. They are so reliable, sound amazing and look great in a sleek red metallic metal finish.
I personally own the 2i2 model which comes with a couple more inputs and outputs but for a fraction of the price, the solo provides the same great quality (up to 192kHz/ 24bit sample rate) and low latency.
To record some vocals or even some instruments such as an acoustic guitar, the next piece of equipment you will probably need is a microphone.
Dynamic or condenser microphone for vocals?
I wrote a detailed article on the difference between these microphone types here, but I will give a quick summary here too.
A dynamic microphone is a simpler and more rugged design and therefore is great for recording loud instruments like guitar amps. A condenser microphone is a more delicate technology and so is great for recording things such as vocals which aren’t likely to damage or cause distortion. The design of a condenser microphone is capable of picking up more subtle differences and so is ideal for vocals.
A large diaphragm condenser microphone is even better because it will capture a wider range of frequencies and therefore even more detail.
USB vs XLR Microphone?
There is an increasing number of USB microphones available these days allowing you to plug straight into your computer and record. Great if you are just recording some vocals or doing something like podcasting. But if you are serious about getting a decent home studio setup I would recommend purchasing an audio interface (as mentioned above) and then getting a proper XLR microphone
Another issue with a USB microphone is that the conversion of the signal from analog to digital (in order for the computer to understand it), has to be done in the microphone unit itself. An audio interface is usually much better at this job as that is their main function.
I have also found that when using the microphone for music rather than just recording a voiceover it can be hard to get the levels right with a USB microphone
Audio Technica AT2020
A great value budget option is the Audio Technica AT2020, available for under $100. It has great frequency range and can handle a large dynamic range too whilst still maintaining a lot of detail.
Shure SM48 Vocal Dynamic Microphone
Ok ok so not actually a this is going against what I said as the SM48 from Shure is, in fact, a dynamic and not a condenser microphone, but the Shure microphones are legendary. The warmth and quality of the sound is hard to beat and with it being dynamic it will give you the flexibility to use on other applications such as for guitar amps if you so wish.
I personally own the SM58 but that costs nearly $100 so if you are on a budget it’s cheaper brother the SM48 is a great starter option at under $50!
A MIDI keyboard isn’t an ‘essential’ item in the budget home studio as you can manually enter MIDI notes using your computer mouse or keyboard within your DAW software. But that isn’t the most pleasant experience for a musician and especially if you want to add more complicated piano parts you will want a MIDI keyboard.
MIDI keyboards come in many shapes and sizes and with a range of different features. If you simply want to add a few simple parts then just getting a small keyboard would be great. However, still within the budget price range, you can get some quite handy additional features such as a small number of pads for adding drum hits.
There is no point in spending the money on a 49 key keyboard if you are only adding a few notes, but equally, there is no point in getting a MIDI keyboard with loads of pad features if you only want to record piano. Below are a couple of good budget options depending on your needs:
Nektar IMPACT LX25
In the small budget category, the Nektar Impact is a great choice. Being just 25 keys means it is nice and compact, which can actually be really handy in a home studio where you are probably going to be limited with space and where a large keyboard may ruin your workflow.
The Impact has some nice additional features as well as the keyboard including some nice backlit pads for adding drums or cueing scenes if you are using software like Ableton Live.
M-Audio Keystation (32/ 49 or 61 Key)
If you are looking to record more piano parts and the pads aren’t something you require then it is worth getting something slightly larger. If you go for a full 88 key piano size you will spend a fortune but you are unlikely to need that and you can easily get away with less.
The great thing about the M-Audio Keystation range is the different options. You can decide what your budget is and what your requirements are and then decide which one to go for.
So in conclusion if you went for the cheapest options mentioned here this is the approximate cost:
Acer Aspire E15 – $550
Cubase LE – Free
beyerdynamic DT990 headphones – $150
Behringer U-Phoria UMC22 – $60
Shure SM48 – $50
Nektar Impact – $100
Various Cables – $20